50 Spiritual Classics: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: July 28th, 2011 by bobmorris

50 Spiritual Classics: Timeless Wisdom from 50 Great Books on Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose
Tom Butler-Bowdon
Nicholas Brealey Publishing (2005)

To paraphrase Walt Whitman, “We are large, we contain multitudes”

Note: This is one of volumes in the 5o Classics series, each available in a softbound edition and priced at less than $15.00.

Of course, throughout human history, the subject of this book – spirituality — has been nurtured as well as defined and measured in many different ways. Hence the importance of the fact that Butler-Bowdon offers a wide range of perspectives from the works of an especially diversified group that includes St. Augustine (Confessions, 400), Carlos Castaneda (Journey to Ixtlan, 1972), Mohandas Gandhi (An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, 1927), William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902), C.S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters, 1942), Teresa of Avila (Inferior Castle, 1570), Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, 1998), Rick Warren (The Purpose-Driven Life, 2002), and Paramahansa Yogananda (Autobiography of a Yogi, 1946).

As in the other volumes in his series, Butler-Bowdon follows a format for each of the 50 chapters: brief representative quotations, an “In a nutshell” section, a rigorous and remarkably thorough summary of the given source’s key points, a Final comments” section, and then (in most instances) a brief bio of its author. I also appreciate the fact that the book can be read straight through from the first chapter to the last (i.e.Mahammad Asad to Gary Zukav), or in chronological order, or according to six thematic categories (Great spiritual lives, Practical spirituality, The great variety of experience, Opening the doors of perception, Divine relationship and life purpose, and Humanity’s spiritual evolution), or by cherry-picking whichever contributors and/or subjects are of greatest interest. As a convenience to his reader, Butler-Bowdon suggests in his Introduction which authors belong in which category. Here are a few of his comments about some of those whom he discusses, followed by a brief statement by Eckhart Tolle:

“If your misery is great enough, there is a chance that you will arrive at an equally great sense of peace and purpose that less intense people will never experience. The Confessions is one of the best pieces of writing on how a divided, tormented person can be healed through religion…From his inauspicious Roman backwater childhood and fast-living student days, it is remarkable that Augustine became (along with Aquinas) the major intellectual figure in the Christian West for the next 1,000 years. His huge work, The City of God (426), which took 13 years to write, became a theological foundation stone for the emergent Christian religion. All this from a black man born into the fringes of the white empire.” (Page 25)

“Gandhi did not like the title Mahatma, as he did not think of himself as a great man. Far from being a trumpet blowing exercise, his autobiography was designed to detail, objectively his discoveries and failures in relation to right principles and spiritual truth, and he never claimed to have been perfect…Our choice today is to look on him as a singular individual whose like we may never see again, or to take the trail he blazed as our own. Either way, what Gandhi achieved in his experiments is now the spiritual heritage of us all.” (Page 89)

William James “recognized a pattern in conversion experiences. They tended to happen when people were so low that they just `gave up,’ the vacuum of hope providing space for revelation. The religious literature is full of stories along these lines, in which the constrictions and negative aspects of the ego are finally discarded; we begin to live only for others or for some higher goal. The compensation for becoming dependent on God is a letting go of fear, and it is this that makes conversion such a liberating experience.” (Page 133)

“Is painting the world in terms of good and evil too simplistic? Perhaps, but [C.S.] Lewis’s quirky presentation of the polarities as real is quite convincing and makes us think about all of the rationalizations we use to justify our thoughts and actions. What we can take from this book [i.e. The Screwtape Letters] is a reassurance that there is something in us that is naturally resistant to corruption – and that by being true to ourselves we can succeed in increasing that resistance.” (Page 158)

Eckhart Tolle: “Don’t look for any other state than the one you are in now; otherwise, you will set up inner conflict and unconscious resistance. Forgive yourself for not being at peace. The moment you completely accept your non-peace, your non-peace becomes transmuted into peace. Anything you accept fully will get you there, will take you into peace. This is the miracle of surrender.” (Chapter 43, 50 Spiritual Classics, Page 264)

With all due respect to Butler-Bowdon’s other books, (especially those that focus on self-help and success), I think this one is his most valuable because his discussion of the 50 works in which their authors discuss spiritual issues helps his reader to understand that “the quest for material security alone does not ultimately satisfy, and that not even emotional security or great knowledge is enough to sustain us – we were built to see answers to larger questions.” He notes that the word “spiritual” comes from the Latin word for breathing. “If nothing else, this book aims to dispel the idea that there is anything outlandish about spiritual experience; on the contrary, it is what makes us human.”

This book is only indirectly about religion and theology. Its primary focus is on what others have learned during their journeys of exploration and discovery within a realm that has what William James characterizes as an “unseen order,” and our “supreme good” lies in a harmonious adjustment to it. In this context, Tom Butler-Bowdon cites a Persian proverb that serves both as an appropriate conclusion to his Introduction and to this commentary: “Seek the truth in meditation, not in moldy books. Look in the sky to find the moon, not in the pond.”


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